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Emcee Unless: The Artist is the Rapper.

November 15, 2011

Text by Kelsey Doenges. Photos by Bethany Casperite. Art by Dewey Saunders.

Dewey Saunders is a Virgo, and according to him, Virgos are super cute and really good at rapping. They tend to collect old books and they like really strong coffee, with a little bit of cinnamon, a little bit of sugar – organic, raw sugar, and cream – organic cream.

He’s probably being a little facetious with the organic stuff but you can never really tell with Dewey, a 28-year old renaissance man of sorts.

He is an accomplished illustrator, graphic designer, painter and hip-hop artist who performs under the alias Emcee Unless a.k.a. Dewey Decibel. In the art world, his illustrations and design work have been published in The New Yorker, Next American City and Under the Radar magazine. In the music world, he has worked with Fabian Thompson and Grammy-nominated producer Rick Friedrich, who is best known for his work with The Roots, Kanye West and Patty Crash.

Today, he sits on a bench in Rittenhouse Square, which is busy with dog walkers, joggers and people placidly sitting and reading. A Knock Steady T-shirt hides underneath his chunky brown cardigan. He wears dark jeans, a baseball cap and sneakers so white they could blind you. Leaning back on a wooden bench, his right leg crossed over the left, he is calm and collected, sitting next to his girlfriend, Bethany Casperite.

“My friend told me to treat this like a job interview,” he says with a chuckle as he straightens up and fixes his collar.

His story starts in Boynton Beach, Florida, which he affectionately calls, “The Jungle.”

“I floated up on to the beach when I was a baby on a coconut shell, like Mowgli from the Jungle Book,” he says with a smirk. “I was rescued by a band of surfers and they took me back to their jungle commune of sailors and surfers and raised me as a vegetarian, Rastafarian, hippie love child. My dad was a lifeguard and my mom was a waitress. At night they would trim weed in their friend’s ganja farm. So basically, they would work all day, come home and trim buds all night. Everyone would do it. So yeah, that’s the environment I grew into, lots of reggae and weed.”

“The first part is a bit of an exaggeration,” Bethany pipes in, “The second part is pretty accurate.”

His family moved north to Philadelphia when he was in the fourth grade. His mother was originally from the area and the rest of her family lived here.  Trips to New York City with his grandmother became a routine event. After studying toy culture at F.A.O. Schwartz, she would take him to The Met and let him wander, consequently lighting a flame under Dewey’s artistic side.

“Instead of walking around with me,” he says, “she would let me go do my thing and meet back with her wherever at a certain time.”

Eventually he received a design degree from Tyler School of Art at Temple University, with a focus on illustration. Soon he was getting hired by magazines to create portraits and illustrations to pair with stories but working for big organizations was artistically draining.

“Sometimes illustration stuff killed me,” he says, recalling a specific project. “It was a totally wack assignment. The art director already had a preconceived vision, which didn’t allow me to bring anything to the table. So I just had to render bullshit. I felt kind of boxed in. I was doing all these portraits and I was kind of pigeonholed.”

Now he is paying more attention to graphic design, working closely with Under the Radar, getting more shows in galleries and building his music career.

His most recent art work was a collaboration with a friend and fellow artist, Brad Haubrich, called, “The Skull, The Bottle, The Flower, The Mountain,” at Part-Time Studios in Fishtown.

They have been supporting each other’s work for a while but when Brad was approached about curating a show and was strapped for time, he knew that Dewey would be the best person to collaborate with.

“We both deal with objects and symbolism,” Brad says. “We settled on ‘The Skull, The Bottle, The Flower, The Mountain’ because they are reoccurring symbols in both of our work. Some of the objects are manmade and some naturally occur. There is this duality of old stuff, new stuff, manmade and natural.”

Brad carved those images out of wood and the two painted them.

“Brad started it off, I went in with my style, and he finished them,” Dewey says. “He killed it and brought it home.”

Dewey became interested in hip hop in junior high when one of his friends introduced him to Digable Planets. In class, he would sit and write lyrics instead of taking notes, though he incorporated what the teachers would say into his rhymes. He consistently built his vocabulary, searching for new words he had never heard any rapper use.

The content of his music is much different than the typical rap lyrics about weed, cars, women and bragging.

“I am just talking about stuff that’s a little important, in a more abstract, poetic manner,” he explains. “Being an artist, a lot of that language, the visual vernacular, comes into it. I am a rapper rapping about being an artist and a skateboarder. I think that’s kind of a unique quality in a genre so played out.”

He unzips his book bag and pulls out a turquoise colored Moleskin journal and opens to a page covered in lyrics. Then, he starts to rap. His lyrics are complicated but his performance is effortless – even sitting on a bench in Rittenhouse Square, performing for an audience of two.

Dewey lived with Rick Friedrich and Fabian Thompson for three years and he attributes much of his development as a musical artist to their close relationships.

Rick, the owner of The Philadelphia Record Company, produced Dewey’s first studio album, Memories of the Future, giving him a lot of direction with his song writing and vocal production.

“He always believed in my talent,” says Dewey. “He gave me the opportunity to record in a real studio. He definitely has been fundamental in shaping my sound and my identity as a music artist.”

As much as Rick shaped him into a recording artist, Dewey’s other close friend and fellow performer, Fabian Thompson, molded Dewey into a stage performer. Dewey was featured in some of Fabian’s songs and he’s performed at many of Fabian’s shows.

“He is a fantastic performer,” Dewey says. “Doing live shows is where he really shines, so I learned a lot about stage presence, movement, and communication with a crowd. Fabian has pushed my song writing to new heights as well. I used to be really out there with my writing and he has helped me bring it to a place where it is comprehensible and meaningful.”

The trio are starting their own record label called Bold New Breed. In addition to being a label artist, Dewey is going to be the creative director, designing everyone’s album artwork and logos for the label.

“It’s cool because I always wanted to be the creative director of a record label,” he admits. “I never thought it would be my own.”

Dewey has simple goals for his future.

“I want my beard to get bigger and I just want to live baller status off of my art,” he says with a smirk. “I think it could happen. I think I can quit my jobs and grow a big beard.”

He pauses for a quick moment and asks, “So, did I get the job?”

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